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  • © 2014 J. Paul Getty Trust. This education resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

    Art and Poetry Background Information Ekphrastic  Poetry  

    Ekphrastic  poetry  has  come  to  be  defined  as  poems  written  about  works  of  art;  however,  in  ancient   Greece,  the  term  ekphrasis  was  applied  to  the  skill  of  describing  a  thing  with  vivid  detail.  One  of  the   earliest  examples  of  ekphrasis  can  be  found  in  Homer’s  epic  poem  The  Iliad,  in  which  the  speaker   elaborately  describes  the  shield  of  Achilles  in  nearly  150  poetic  lines:      

    And  first  Hephaestus  makes  a  great  and  massive  shield,     blazoning  well-­‐wrought  emblems  all  across  its  surface,     …   And  he  forged  on  the  shield  two  noble  cities  filled   with  mortal  men.  With  weddings  and  wedding  feasts  in  one   …   And  he  forged  the  Ocean  River’s  mighty  power  girdling     round  the  outmost  rim  of  the  welded  indestructible  shield.       (The  Iliad,  Book  18,  lines  558–707)  

      In  addition  to  the  descriptions  of  a  work  of  art,  an  ekphrastic  poem  usually  includes  an  exploration  of   how  the  speaker  is  impacted  by  his  or  her  experience  with  the  work.  For  example,  in  John  Keats’s  “Ode   on  a  Grecian  Urn,”  the  ancient  vessel  piques  the  curiosity  of  the  speaker,  who  asks:  “What  men  or  gods   are  these?  What  maidens  loth?”       Poetic  Responses  to  Art  

    It  is  not  uncommon  for  writers  to  have  transformative   experiences  with  works  of  art.  The  poet  Rainer  Maria   Rilke  was  greatly  influenced  by  visual  art,  including  the   paintings  of  the  French  artist  Paul  Cezanne,  whose   work,  he  believed,  helped  his  writing.  Rilke  captures  the   transformative  experience  of  viewing  a  work  of  art  in   his  poem  “Archaic  Torso  of  Apollo.”  In  the  poem,  the   speaker’s  observations  about  an  ancient  sculpture   spark  reflections  about  existence.  The  poem  ends  with   a  statement  of  epiphany:  “You  must  change  your  life.”       Of  course,  not  all  reactions  to  works  of  art  are  so  life   altering.  Paintings  like  Jean-­‐Baptiste-­‐Camille  Corot’s   Landscape  with  Lake  and  Boatman  could  inspire  poems  

    about  beautiful  scenes.  The  dramatic  coloring  of  a  quiet  vista  at  sunset  appealed  to  the  critics  of  Corot’s   time.    

     

     

    Jean-­‐Baptiste-­‐Camille  Corot’s  Landscape  with   Lake  and  Boatman  resonated  with  Romantic   critics  and  poets,  who  often  wrote  about  

  • © 2014 J. Paul Getty Trust. This education resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

    Art and Poetry Background Information Ekphrastic  Poetry  

    One  critic,  Théophile  Gautier,  enthusiastically  described  the  painting  in  a  poem:    

    See  now  how  evening  from  the  mount  descends;   The  shadow  darker  grows,  and  wider  too;     The  sky  wears  citrus  tones  on  greenish  hue;   …   Scarcely  enough  daylight  remains  to  see   Your  name,  Corot,  so  modestly  inscribed.    

      The  Power  of  Ekphrasis     The  publication  of  an  ekphrastic  poem  in  the  19th  century  sparked  a  national  debate.  Inspired  by  the   French  artist  Jean-­‐François  Millet’s  painting  Man  with  a  Hoe,  the  American  poet  Edwin  Markham  wrote   a  poem  about  the  backbreaking  work  of  laborers  as  represented  by  the  weary  man  depicted  in  Millet’s   painting.  After  the  poem  was  published  in  the  San  Francisco  Examiner  in  1899,  it  was  reprinted  in   thousands  of  newspapers  and  magazines  across  the  country.  As  a  result  of  the  poem,  debate  about   labor  rights  occupied  the  press,  social  circles,  and  classrooms.  The  symbol  of  the  man  with  a  hoe   appeared  in  speeches  by  union  leaders  and  the  clergy.         The  poem  begins:    

    Bowed  by  the  weight  of  centuries  he  leans   Upon  his  hoe  and  gazes  on  the  ground,   The  emptiness  of  ages  in  his  face,   And  on  his  back  the  burden  of  the  world.    …   Who  loosened  and  let  down  this  brutal  jaw?     Whose  was  the  hand  that  slanted  back  this  brow?     Whose  breath  blew  out  the  light  within  this  brain?    

          Both  lyrical  and  political,  Markham’s  poem  fuses  vivid  descriptions  of  the  man  in  Millet’s  painting  with   pointed  questions  implicating  society’s  role  in  the  working  conditions  of  agricultural  laborers.  The  poem   and  painting  are  powerful  examples  of  the  impact  that  the  literary  and  visual  arts  can  have  on  society.    

     

     

    Edwin  Markham’s  poetic  description  of   the  man  in  Jean-­‐François  Millet’s  painting   Man  with  a  Hoe  was  a  useful  symbol  for  

  • © 2014 J. Paul Getty Trust. This education resource is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

    Art and Poetry Background Information Ekphrastic  Poetry  

     

      References     Academy  of  American  Poets.  “Ekphrasis:  Poetry  Confronting  Art.”  

    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5918     Homer.  The  Iliad.  Translated  by  Robert  Fagles.  New  York:  Penguin  Group,  1990.  

    Nash,  William  R.  “Edwin  Markham’s  Life  and  Career—A  Concise  Overview.”  Modern  American  Poetry   Site.  http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/markham/life.htm  

    Tinterow,  Gary,  Michael  Pantazzi,  and  Vincent  Pomarède.  Corot.  Exh.  cat.  New  York:  Metropolitan   Museum  of  Art,  1996.  Un  Soir;  paysage,  also  called  Le  Batelier  (effet  de  soir)  (Evening   Landscape¸also  called  The  Ferryman,  Evening),  pp.  180–82,  no.  75,  entry  by  Michael  Pantazzi.  

    Welsh,  Ryan.  Theories  of  Media  Keywords  Glossary,  s.v.  “ekphrasis.”  University  of  Chicago.     http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/ekphrasis.htm  

     

       

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